Mother Tongue


My brother sits across from me at a laksa restaurant. We are swapping our favourite Hindi words, delighting in the textures of each expression.

“Do you remember the word ulti?”

My brother mimes gagging over his noodles. We laugh at how visceral the word is, it echoes the sound of vomit. The kind of functional word a South Asian child learns at an early age. The vocabulary of bodily functions. I am thirsty. My stomach hurts. I need to vomit.

Each word has associative power, evoking a mood. Despite its rigidities, Hindi has always felt informal, a language of childhood. Having a sibling means that someone implicitly understands your upbringing. You navigate the strange terrain of childhood together, building a shared lexicon, a unique patois.

Now that we are adults, we engage in these acts of narrative reclamation. Conversations where memory is slippery and unreliable. My brother and I are like forensic examiners, raking through recollections. We compare, litigate, commiserate. This is how it was for me. Was it like this for you too?

My initial encounters with Hindi were free of struggle. As a child, a language seeps into your consciousness almost by accident. You learn it in a sensory, tactile way. I only began to resent Hindi later, after years of arid exercises and essays.

Since I moved from Dubai eight years ago, I rarely speak Hindi. My grasp of the language is like a muscle that has slowly atrophied. It was never a conscious renunciation, but a slow act of attrition. My responses are slower. I scrabble for words, stumble over pronunciation. To speak is to blunder.

I am limited to being an observer, my Hindi an act of trespass.

“Watch out, there are some actual Indian people on the next table. The probably speak real Hindi, not this shit version.”


In a recent dream, I was back in my grandmother’s apartment building in the old part of Mumbai.

I was stuck in the elevator, an ancient contraption, made from iron beams, like a rusted ribcage. It rattled up and down, picking up passengers from different floors. The other passengers appeared like giants: a swirl of skirt, a starched pant leg. They spoke to each other in bursts: indistinct words punctuated by laughter. I stood below their line of vision, a mute spectator.

The dream itself is mundane, rooted in a memory. But it also feels strangely allegorical. To learn a language is to be vulnerable, to be transported to childhood.

I associate my formal study of Hindi with cloistered, darkened rooms, poring over incomprehensible text. I wrote feeble essays, stringing together self-conscious sentences. My mind could take discursive leaps, but my expression was agonisingly slow. The rewards felt meagre and remote.

In one of my favourite short stories, ‘Mr. Burdoff’s Visit to Germany’ by Lydia Davis, a man describes a classroom of adults learning German. They learn through childlike chanting, play-acting buying fruit or asking for directions. Davis captures the absurdity of language learning, how it necessitates a loss of control.

The hesitation of members of the class as they attempt to speak is charming; a fresh innocence endows them as they expose their weakness.

Language mediates our self-conception and relationship to the world. Language learning requires opening yourself up to humiliation, remaking your identity. I am reminded of David Sedaris’s reflections on learning French.

My fear and discomfort crept beyond the borders of my classroom and accompanied me out onto the wide boulevards, where, no matter how hard I tried, there was no escaping the feeling of terror I felt whenever anyone asked me a question.

This terror is especially acute when the language is your ‘native tongue’, where lack of fluency signals your outsider status.

In Hindi I speak with a simple, direct vocabulary, incapable of abstract thought or expression. I can express basic emotions: “I am happy” and “I am sad”, distinguished only by degree (“I am very sad”). Like my vocabulary, my persona in Hindi is quiet and pragmatic. I feel like that child in the elevator, with a complex inner life I cannot articulate.


In Decolonising the Mind, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o explores how European languages have dominated the ‘mental universe’ of colonised people. English is the ultimate tyrant, with other languages bowing before it in deference.

I have accepted what Thiong’o describes as the ‘fatalistic logic’ of writing in English. Like many Indian families, we grew up speaking English at home. Hindi was on the periphery, reserved for moments of tension or humour. Despite the intimacy a mother tongue offers, sometimes it demands more of you than you are willing to give.

I have complicated feelings about English. The rewards of fluency are lucrative, a prerequisite of assimilation. But beyond that, English has always been the language I think and dream in, the only thing I have ever felt (elusive) mastery over.

Reading and writing in English is the only time that I experience what Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi describes as ‘flow’, a state of complete immersion. On my best days, I feel like I am gliding through water, words arranging themselves into clear prose.

Fluency creates access, but it exacts a price. I often think about the way second generation migrants distance themselves from recent arrivals. We’re not like them. I understand the impulse and have been guilty of it myself. But it is rooted in a sense that somehow this difference is shameful, something to be apologised for.


I stopped writing in late 2017. I felt paralysed, uncertain about my authorial authenticity. My writing felt performative, mimicking the tropes of Diaspora™. The spell was broken this year when I read Naben Ruthnum’s essay Curry: Eating, Reading and Race. Ruthnum’s essay critiques the demand for ‘currybooks’, which he defines as “nostalgic, authenticity-seeking reconciliation-of-present-with-past family narratives.”

I have wrestled with a strange dual impulse, the need to purge myself of otherness, whilst foregrounding the ‘exotic’ imaginary in my writing. Ruthnum finally gave me the language to express my predicament. The publishing industry encourages this ghettoisation, as Ruthnum says, “if you’re a brown writer, it [currybooks] will be presumed to be your default genre, and you’d best recognise that.”

I often wrestle with this question of ‘authenticity’, with who has ownership of certain stories. I am suspicious of the impulse to collapse complexity into anodyne labels like ‘women of colour’ or ‘immigrant fiction’. This taxonomy foregrounds whiteness and maleness as the default.

This cultural gaze is what fucks with me. When I write fiction, every choice feels loaded. To not address race means the characters are assumed to be white. But focusing on a character’s South Asianness requires navigating the ‘immigrant fiction’ cliches. These tropes litter the cultural landscape like landmines. The diaspora bingo scorecard: cultural confusion, familial expectations, longing for an imagined homeland. These touchstones offer a kernel of truth, a comforting shorthand. But they are insidiously totalising, colonising our cultural imagination.


The first time I encountered Rupi Kaur’s milk and honey I was in a bookshop in East London. The bookshop sat adrift in a rapidly changing neighbourhood, originally a migrant suburb, evidenced by the few Bangladeshi restaurants left.

The book had a striking cover: an illustration of bees floating disembodied against a black backdrop. I was also drawn to it because the name Kaur is Punjabi: a rarity in publishing.

Her poems were sparse and strangely untethered. I am interested in how meaning can be compressed into a limited space. Writing micro-fiction requires understanding how sentences function on an elemental level.

Kaur’s work felt familiar. I had encountered her aphoristic poetry on Facebook and Instagram, with its distinctive hand-drawn illustrations. She writes with a dislocated second person gaze, imbuing the banal with a sense of profundity. Her poems are riddled with cliché, the imagery strangely clunky: “the woman who comes after me will be a bootleg version of who i am” and “more than anything / i want to save you / from myself”.

In a way, her success (and her mediocrity) is a victory for minority writers. She bypassed canonical gatekeepers by self-publishing, and found a huge audience online. Her writing may be formulaic, but it is indisputably of greater worth than many works within the canon written by white men.

Kaur’s appeal is predicated on authenticity, on her confessional style. She describes writing as ‘the most honest act of living’. Her poetry explores her own subjective, individual experience, whilst claiming to represent the ‘South Asian female experience’.

I struggle with Kaur’s invocation of a generalised shared trauma that transcends spatio-temporal divisions. Kaur and I are both from Punjab, a notoriously patriarchal sliver of the country. By focusing her gaze on the South Asian female body as the site of “shame and oppression”, Kaur sets up false equivalencies between vastly disparate experiences. Being an Indian in the West is its own kind of dislocation (common territory in the ‘currybooks’ Ruthnum refers to), but Kaur seems to overlook her own narrative positioning. She acknowledges little difference between herself, a Western educated Indian-Canadian and her ancestors, or even a woman living in modern-day Punjab. These parallels are disingenuous, overlooking the specificity of trauma, the gaps in generational experience. As Ruthnum writes:

What’s lost in this pursuit of the authentic is, perhaps, the specificity of the different immigrant existences, ways of being and tasting that are about the present rather than about pursuing the lost truth of generations past.

Kaur’s success brings me back to Thiong’o’s description of the ‘rewards’ of writing in a hegemonic language such as English or French. It is striking that the self-appointed representative of South Asian women is a privileged Indian-Canadian, but it also feels inevitable. Kaur writes in English, has calibrated ‘authenticity’ and trades in predictable tropes. A greater multiplicity of stories, including writing in translation, is the only solution to this homogenous, cookie-cutter version of representation. Ruthnum also explores the power of specificity:

Our personal histories, on the other hand, are a fruit that expands as it is peeled, until it is too large to be gripped in the hands or the mind.



Rhea Bhagat

Author: Rhea Bhagat

Rhea is a writer from Melbourne, currently living in France. She is a political podcast enthusiast and intense tooth flosser. She tweets @rheaviewmirror.

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